The French Dispatch

Bill Murray as the editor of the Dispatch

A middle finger to the haters, The French Dispatch finds an unrepentant Wes Anderson doubling down on the whimsy and pastiche of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There’s more. An artist’s statement, done early on in Owen Wilson’s laconic voiceover, vouchsafes that “All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.” Secrets? Deepest? Anderson is all surface, surely?

Anyhow, on to the Dispatch, which is an American magazine/supplement of New Yorker stripe run in the old way – a liberal institution headed by a steely eccentric (played by Bill Murray), never short of money and with enough space to contain at least one writer who doesn’t write, enough time on its hands to worry excessively about dangling participles and house style. People have expense accounts. The assignments are exotic. It’s fun. People are dying to work there. This is an indeterminate French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but is essentially mid-century Paris by way of Clochemerle, as depicted in Gabriel Chevallier’s sweetly satirical novel of sleepy, petty French France.

And from here, framing device established, Anderson gives us three separate stories, each fronted by a different writer. In the first Tilda Swinton gives us another of her big-teethed, big-haired eccentrics, relating the story of a jailbird (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes a great artist thanks to his muse, who’s also his jailer (Léa Seydoux), and a conman gallerist (Adrien Brody, best thing in the whole film). In the second Frances McDormand plays the writer of a piece about how she befriended and bedded a student radical (Timothée Chalamet) in an Andersonian version of 1968 Paris, before he ran off with a woman closer to his own age (Lyna Khoudri). And in the third Liev Schreiber plays a TV host talking a story out of a celebrated journalist (Jeffrey Wright) about how a chef of the molecular gastronomy school (Steve Park) – he’s called Nescaffier, which is the film’s only really good joke – thwarted a kidnapping.

The artist and his muse/jailer
The artist and his muse/jailer



It’s arch, all of it. At this point in Anderson’s career that kind of goes without saying. But the level of pastiche is what’s really remarkable, and the fact that Anderson never, ever stops laying it on. In one micro-scene that’s emblematic of the whole thing, he fast-cuts between various recipients of a radio broadcast, each one of them listening to it on a different mid-century transistor radio straight from kitsch corner. Inside each doll another doll, fractalling away in a pastiche universe stretching off to the limits of time.

Shot in that dead flat, absolutely shadowless way by Robert Yeoman, who’s been with Anderson ever since his debut, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, the effect is Carl Theodor Dreyer meets a mid-century-modern furniture catalogue, every single aspect considered, every item teased and tweezed. Everything just so.

As with the films of Peter Greenaway, there’s an obsession with symmetry and a tendency for the elaborate production design (by Adam Stockhausen) to become the star of the show. The frame outshines the painting it contains. The “movie” stops moving.

If there are “deepest secrets” then it’s Anderson’s abiding love of the mid 20th century. When the US venerated French culture, and Ernest Hemingway might be found drinking with Lee Miller in the Café de Flore. It’s the era of the triumph of democracy, of pop culture, New Journalism, continental philosophy and the European arthouse movie. Boomers might recognise themselves.

The cameos are fun – Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, some on screen for mere seconds.

To reach for another comparison, it’s Jacques Tati without the jokes and if, like me, you’re not a Tati fan, it’s a slog to watch. 45 minutes from the end I was wondering if the dry-humping of the picturesque past was ever going to stop. I was never entirely sure if it was meant to be an entertaining whole, or just a series of brilliantly executed “sketches”? Like a dinner of exquisite individual courses that never really hangs together as a whole, The French Dispatch is easier to admire than to enjoy.



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









On the Rocks

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in a cab

 

A Sofia Coppola movie with Bill Murray as an agent of misrule? Lost in Translation II is the guiding principle of On the Rocks, though “stars” Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans might disagree.

First up, we’re served Jones and Wayans hot and then cold – an opening scene shows Laura (Jones) and Dean (Wayans) in love and hot for each other sneaking away from their own wedding party to take a swim in the pool in the hotel basement. Cut to some years later and Dean arrives home late from a work thing, kisses Laura sleepily and then reacts with surprise when she says something. Was he expecting someone else?

She was in bed watching Chris Rock on TV riffing about the difference between “fucking” and “intercourse” – “fucking” is what you do before you’re married, opines Rock – so was in the right frame of mind to entertain doubts about her marriage.

Suspicious, she turns to her father Felix (Murray) for guidance. Felix is a man firmly in the “fucking” camp and has spent his life bouncing from one bed to another. Even now in his anecdotage he’s hitting on every woman he encounters, using charm to get the deflector shields down. Dad reckons that of course Dean is playing away, because that’s what he’d do. Having convinced her to at least consider the idea, the rest of the movie consists of Felix co-opting the reluctant Laura into his increasingly invasive investigation – private detectives, photos, a car chase and ultimately a trip to Mexico to finally nail the bastard while he’s nailing one of his co-workers.

 

Rashisa Jones and Marlon Wayans in a restaurant
Cosy? Not for long

 

Meanwhile, in what seems like an omen, everywhere Laura goes, everyone she talks to, is discussing relationships one way or another – sex, fidelity, new relationships getting going, old ones falling apart.

Farce with a French flavour seems to be Coppola’s intention, though I suspect a French film would have fleshed out the characters of Laura and Dean a bit beyond juggling mother and good-guy dad.

The Laura/Dean story is a MacGuffin. They’re the necessary connective tissue allowing Bill Murray to twinkle away in episodes that would  otherwise be free floating. Two standouts – Felix is pulled over by the cops and, in a bit of “well I never” hat-tipping to 1930s screwball comedies, manages to emerge smelling of roses. In another, Laura enters a beachside restaurant only to find that her father is there already, on first names terms with everyone in the room (all women) and in the middle of singing a showstopping song.

To stop it looking entirely like a Bill Murray film, Coppola writes a few hand-wringing speeches for Jones, mostly of her interrogating her dad about men’s seeming lack of capacity for keeping their dick in their pants, which he responds to with the sort of “it’s hardwired” shrug that’s exactly what you’d expect from an ageing lothario. Harry and Sally stuff.

Felix, by the way, is impossibly wealthy, a semi-retired art dealer; she is a writer struggling with a blank page. I’m not sure if that makes any difference but does at least help locate us more firmly in New York, or Movie New York at least.

Coppola is no Nora Ephron or Woody Allen but she does have insight and good jokes. And Bill Murray – here on killer form.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Groundhog Day

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 February

 

 

Groundhog Day

Today is Groundhog day. In areas of Pennsylvania where a High German dialect known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch (from Deutsch) is still preserved the event is marked with a fersommlinge (Versammlung in modern German, meaning meeting) at which much interest is shown in a groundhog, a type of marmot, and whether it throws a shadow when leaving its burrow. If it does, so the folklore says, there will be another six weeks of winter. But if it is cloudy, then spring is on the way. The largest of these celebrations is held in Punxsutawney, where the soothsaying is done by Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog who is said to be well over 100 years old. His predictions tend to be accurate about a third of the time.

 

 

 

Groundhog Day (1993, dir: Harold Ramis)

Where to start with Groundhog Day? A film that has been the subject of doctoral theses, endless fanboy chat and blank admiration from nearly everyone who’s seen it. How about the plot? Easy. It’s about Phil (Bill Murray), an embittered weatherman who goes up to Punxsutawney to report on the Groundhog Day celebration, falls for his cute producer (Andie MacDowell) who hates him, and then wakes up the next day to Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe on the radio just as he did the day before. Because it is the same day all over again. The same happens the next day – Sonny and Cher leading into another re-run of Groundhog Day – and the day after that. Except it’s only happening to Phil, no one else. How long does this cycle repeat itself? Again, this is the subject of much internet speculation – 10 to 10,000 years have been suggested. At any rate enough time to learn to play the piano like a concert master. On the way to piano proficiency Phil also learns a big lesson in humility and abandons his formerly dour cynical demeanour in favour of a helpful cheerful one. And he abandons his desperate attempts to impress the girl in favour of being himself. Buddhists love Groundhog Day – it’s the reliving aspect, but also the surrender – so do film critics (who now discuss it in terms of Absurdism, having warmed up a long way since their initially so-so reactions) and so do audiences. Indeed it is a film that only reveals it subtleties and depths on repeated viewings. Which does seem kind of appropriate.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Is this the quintessential Bill Murray movie?
  • A modern classic
  • Great casting includes Stephen Tobolowsky as the hilarious Ned Ryerson
  • So you can argue about how long Phil is trapped in Groundhog Day

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Groundhod Day – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Rushmore

Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore

 

 

Hollywood in look but in tone something else, this is the odd tale of an intellectually precocious, loquacious, speccy, blazer-wearing 15-year-old (Jason Schwartzman) who falls for one of his teachers, pretty Olivia Williams (think of a non-irritating Liz Hurley with a couple of decent dinners inside her). Unfortunately, misanthropic  local steel baron Bill Murray (back on Groundhog Day form) is equally smitten. Faint heart never won fair lady and the oddly mismatched and yet similarly obsessive love rivals are soon at it hammer and tongues. Very weird and often touching romantic comedy ensues as these two strange characters are dissected, helped along by acting that’s all played straight, no one raises even so much as an ironic eyebrow. There’s a nicely chosen soundtrack with some old favourites (Kinks, Stones, Cat Stevens, Donovan), though it’s not the usual suspects by all those guys, more the offbeat, whimsical examples of their work. As with Anderson’s first effort, Bottle Rocket, keeping it fresh seems to be the idea. It works.

© Steve Morrissey 1999

 

Rushmore – at Amazon